During the recent session of the Arkansas legislature, competing bills were introduced to regulate plant-made pharmaceutical crops in the state. The first, Senate Bill 318 (SB318), called for a ban, with rare exceptions, on growing plant-made pharmaceuticals. It didn’t make it out of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The second, House Bill 2574 (HB2574), was more lenient towards such crops. After several weeks of debate, HB2574 passed the legislature.

At the time, there was much speculation that agricultural researchers in the state had been closely involved with HB2574. Bill Reed, Riceland Foods vice president, confirmed that in a mid-March interview. “The industry — Farm Bureau, Arkansas Rice Producers, the Southern Crop Production Association, the university research divisions, the Arkansas Plant Board and others — put together a bill we believe provides a balanced approach to this situation.”

While safeguarding the economic viability of the food-grade rice crop, Reed said, the legislation would protect research for “input or output traits.” That may seem an innocuous claim, but there’s plenty to protect.

“Our interest, for a long time, has been to produce pharmaceuticals in plants,” said Tim O’Brien. “The reason is very simple: the medical school has a fairly significant portfolio of technology— perhaps 250 patents. We’re also responsible for about 20 startup companies here. So our goal is to create new industry, a new economic sector in Arkansas.”

O’Brien, a man whose words carry an Irish accent, is director of the Little Rock-based Biomedical Biotechnology Center. Established by the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1994, the Biomedical Biotechnology Center is an umbrella under which research and industry huddle. The Biomedical Biotechnology Center is also responsible for a business incubator, Arkansas BioVentures, opened in 1997.

Recently, O’Brien spoke to Delta Farm Press about biotechnology and how it could help Arkansas producers. Among his comments:

On plant-made pharmaceuticals…

“Part of our effort, because we’re a medical school, is to produce pharmaceutical products. Several companies are interested in developing both vaccines and diagnostics. These are proteins derived from viruses or from the human genome — proteins expressed in tumors or cancer cells. People could be vaccinated to eliminate or prevent cancer.

“Therefore, we have a significant interest in how such products are produced. Traditionally, these products would be produced in yeast, bacteria or in cells of culture. Another way to produce them, though, is inside plants.

“Of course, Arkansas has a strong history of agriculture, and there is great expertise in the field. That expertise is tied to certain crops: rice, soybeans, cotton and winter wheat spring to mind.

“So, clearly there are potential ways to configure these plants and products at a significantly lower cost than from other methods. We see the capacity to produce high-value products by relatively small farmers as a way to enhance the agricultural potential of the state.

“Small farmers could do well with this because you don’t need 1,000 acres to produce the products. A farmer could do well with 10, 20 or 50 acres.”

On canola and rice as plant-made pharmaceuticals…

“The issue became ‘What are the ideal plants for producing the proteins for therapeutic uses?’ We looked at several candidates, beginning with canola. Canola isn’t commonly grown in Arkansas, but there are varieties that do well here.

“We, in fact, have done early experimental work with canola, all of it in containment in collaboration with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

“We also have evaluated rice. Ventria and others are in this business because rice is a very good candidate crop for producing the proteins. Rice can store many of the proteins, which allows a higher production rate. And the technology to introduce the products into rice is well-established.

On market opinion…

“We also recognize the potential of market opinion in introducing the proteins in rice. As a result, we’ve focused on plant varieties that aren’t big commodities. More recently, we’ve been focusing on cowpeas as our main vehicle.

“We’re redeveloping technology because much of it was brought along through canola and rice. Now, we must rework it for cowpeas.

“We think cowpeas will work well because they’re self-pollinating, they have large seeds that are workable and containable. We believe cowpeas can be grown and managed in a way that would be very valuable to small farmers.

“If we’re prevented from doing that in Arkansas, we’ll have to look somewhere else. Inevitably, the pharma-industry will settle where it’s most economical to produce these proteins.”

You mentioned a couple of things that are close to fruition. Please elaborate.

“We have diagnostics and vaccines in clinical trials. If they go through the trials successfully and become a commodity we can use in the population for therapy, then the demand for the product will go up significantly. We would like to be in a position at that time to produce it in reasonable quantities.

“To do that, we would probably need to grow these products in quantity within the next two years. That means we hope to have initial production in an experimental system hopefully this year. That, in turn, will help expand the seed base so we’ll be able to have enough when the project moves forward in two years.”

On how genes are placed inside plants…

“There are several manners. First, there’s the ‘gene gun’ where gold particles with DNA on them are ‘fired’ into plant cells. There’s also a bacteria used — normally part of the nitrogen fixation process in certain plants.

“You do initial work in tissue culture and then use certain media that encourage root growth or stem growth. You take the resulting plantlets and grow them. Those are then screened and if any good ones are discovered, you continue working with them.”

How close are we from seeing real plant-made pharmaceutical benefits to the world? Are we 10 years away?

“No. In some cases, we’re very close. The human genome has been sequenced and we understand the genes and what regulates the disease processes and normal support processes for well-being. We’re now finding what can be produced that will help us maintain a normal metabolism and how to prevent disease.

“As we do that, the whole pharmaceutical industry is moving away from chemistry-based to a biologically-based focus. That simply means instead of chemicals modifying cell behavior they’re looking at proteins. The capacity to produce these proteins will be in incredible demand and expanded over the next five years. The opportunities for farmers, therefore, will develop very fast.”

On marketing GM and plant-made pharmaceutical crops to the world…

“The truth is we haven’t done a great job in educating the public as a whole about biotechnology. We should have been explaining the benefits and acknowledging the questions regarding any risks or downsides.

“There are risks to anything, of course… Everyone should agree that, if produced, (plant-made pharmaceuticals) need to be contained and not part of the general population of plants. I think that’s very important, so we need plans and regulations that must be complied with. But I think it’s clear that these proteins are going to be produced. If done properly, they can be highly beneficial to everyone.”

Have any economists looked at how much this would benefit the state and farmers? What’s the monetary potential for this?

“There are estimates out there. I don’t want to blow up the importance. But from an economic development standpoint, there is significant and important potential with this industry. Very small acreage can produce a high-value crop.

“The great question facing us in Arkansas is, ‘How do we design systems that are risk averse and contained properly that provide opportunities for the small farmer?’ That’s what I want to see us accomplish.

“We can do this! This is an industry that’s just beginning. We can be in the forefront of how the industry is crafted and how we want the state to participate and we should spend time figuring out how best to do that.”

Editor’s note: for more information, visit www.uamsbiotech.com.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com